This is a work of fiction, a short story of 1900 words.
When Nigel was quite young, his mum had received a letter by air mail. That was something of an event, but she didn’t tell him who it was from. She would only say it was from a friend. He retrieved the envelope from the waste bin though, and noticed that it had an American stamp on it. It was postmarked from a place he didn’t know, but he liked the sound of the name. Chattanooga, Tennessee. He repeated that name over and over in his head.
Nigel had never met his dad. Mum said he had been killed early on in the war, before Nigel was born. Now that mum had got that letter, the boy secretly hoped that he was really alive, and perhaps living in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Nigel asked mum if he could have the stamp. He had decided to collect stamps, he informed her. She helped him to steam it off the envelope, holding it over a boiling kettle. After that, Nigel became a specialist stamp collector. He collected only American stamps, using his small amount of pocket money, or cash gifts from relatives at birthdays and Christmas. When he was old enough, he got a paper round, and used all of his pay to buy more American stamps. Not only stamps. He bought envelopes, commemorative covers, letters to soldiers sent during the war, special issues, collections, and even personal letters sold by people advertising the stamps on them.
It wasn’t that easy to find out that much, in a post-war Britain that always seemed gloomy and cold. But he had the library, and could buy old stamp catalogues and collector’s magazines. Once he was old enough to go down into central London on his own, he would spend hours looking around the stamp shops near Charing Cross Road, and investigating the musty second-hand bookshops for anything to do with stamps, especially American stamps. Nigel let his youth pass by, then his adolescence too, dedicating himself to his collection. By the time he left school and started as a clerk at the insurance company, things were looking up for the country, and other young people were enjoying Trad Jazz, Skiffle, and Folk Music. But not Nigel. He remained dedicated to his stamps.
His favourite shop was the one run by Mr Gold. Little more than a cubicle, situated in a back alley behind one of the many theatres in the area, it was nonetheless a place of wonder to Nigel. Mr Gold knew his stuff, and would seek out specials for the young man, as well as buying back any duplicates, or making fair offers for parts of the collection that Nigel was tired of looking at. Whenever he got the chance, Nigel would be sure to pop in to see Mr Gold, sure that he would always have something of interest.
Life continued to slip by unnoticed for Nigel. The swinging sixties went over his head. Beatlemania was something he only saw in the newspapers, and girls and dating never even occurred to him. When his colleagues laughed about him behind his back, he was oblivious. He worked hard, and read his stamp magazines during lunch in the staff canteen. Mum did seem to be getting older, and a little slower, but she still prepared his dinner every night, and when he went into the spare room to look at his stamps, she would watch her TV shows until bedtime. She had never mentioned that letter again, and there was no talk of another one ever being received.
One day, she told him that she had to go into hospital for an operation. She left him some meals in the fridge, and plenty of shopping in the cupboard. He had to go to the Royal Northern in Holloway to visit her, which meant he would have to forego his regular trip to Mr Gold’s shop. The doctor told him that she hadn’t made it. He was very sorry and all that, but nothing could be done. Nigel went to the local undertaker and made the arrangements. He was the only person at the cremation. For the next few days, he was excited at the prospect of what post might arrive. He had put a small obituary notice in the newspaper, hoping that people might send cards. There might be one from Chattanooga, Tennessee, with any luck. But it was not to be. Just one from the place where mum used to work, and the usual bills.
With mum gone, Nigel moved his collection into her old bedroom, the biggest one in the house. But he had to pay for everything now, and had a lot less money for stamps. There were few he didn’t have already, he had to be honest about that, but the American Bicentennial was coming up, and that meant lots of new issues and commemoratives. Only one thing for it, he would have to sell some of his less desirable stuff.
Louis Gold just about made ends meet. He had come to England from Germany some years before the start of the war, in 1935. His father had seen the way things were going there, and had sent him and his older sister to live with distant relatives in east London. They had suggested that he change his name from Goldberg to Gold, as many Jewish families with similar names had already done. Before things became really bad over in Germany, his father had sent over the huge family collection of stamps, suggesting that Louis could start up a business trading in them. Along with this, he enclosed two small diamonds, which could be sold to raise enough money to rent a shop. Then the war came along. Louis managed to survive the Blitz, and carried on going to school.
He never heard from any of his family in Germany again, and all efforts to find them came to nothing. The family home was gone, destroyed in the bombing, and any wealth his father had accumulated had been stolen by the Nazis. So Louis sold the diamonds, and opened his little shop dealing in stamps. During the 1950s, stamp collecting was very popular, and he did quite well. Even when it fell out of fashion, his expertise guaranteed him a regular clientele, and he sent stamps all over the world from the little half-shop in that alleyway.
He could see Nigel approaching. The old-fashioned belted raincoat, and his hair already receding. Louis hoped he wouldn’t stay too long. He was a good customer, but he did go on so, often hanging around for a couple of hours, chatting endlessly about American stamps.
But this time, Nigel was selling, not buying. He placed a box on the counter containing dozens of letters, many unopened. They were bound by elastic bands, each pile bearing an almost identical stamp.
“I never got round to steaming these off, Mr Gold. All the stamps are duplicates for me, but they may be of some interest.” Nigel played it cool. He was hoping that the shopkeeper would suggest a price, to avoid haggling. But he didn’t.
“How much are you looking for, Nigel?” Louis liked the man, but wasn’t about to pay too much for stock items.
“There are over one hundred letters there. I was hoping for £10.”
Louis pondered a moment.
“If you take it in stock, I could go to £12.” he suggested.
Nigel had been hoping he wouldn’t say that, he hated having to bargain.
“I need the money for the new American stamps this year, Mr Gold, so would prefer cash.
Louis reached into his pocket, produced a £10 note and passed it across the counter.
“Alright, Nigel. Here you are, that’s a fair price.”
Later that afternoon, with no customers since Nigel, Louis had been looking at the letters he had bought. One had caught his attention, and he went back to look at it again. It was an air mail letter, sent from the US, and addressed to someone in Germany. There was no return address on the back of the envelope and it had never been opened, but the front bore a message, written in German. Louis could of course read German. It read ‘Not known at this address.’ Louis wondered how it had ever ended up in Nigel’s collection, but stranger things had happened. Louis had noticed the envelope because of the message, but also because it had too much postage. Three stamps totaling 50 cents would have been excessive for that time, considering it was postmarked in late December, 1949. He had also seen that it was posted from East Hampton, Long Island. Louis knew this to be an expensive and desirable place to live, even just after the war.
At home that night, Louis decided to open the letter. The spidery handwriting on the address intrigued him, although he had never heard of the person it had been sent to, Dr. Karl Loewe. Inside, he found a flimsy page of blue paper, filled with writing in the same spindly hand. He read it easily enough. Then he read it again. Going to the cabinet in the corner, he poured himself a large cognac. There was an uneasy feeling in his stomach that he needed to settle, and a mounting sense of excitement that was unfamiliar to him. Holding the drink, he spread the paper out on the table once again. Despite reading it in German, he couldn’t help translating it into English in his head as he read. He had been here a long time, after all.
My dear Karl,
I am urging you to make your way to the American Embassy in Bonn. Ask for a Mr Tom Allen, who will expect you. They will arrange for you and your family to come to live here, in the United States, where your scientific skills will be most useful, and well rewarded too.
They have been very good to me here. We live in a lovely house, and have round the clock protection. There is the beach nearby, and any food you desire. Many of those from the old days have been brought to see me, including Von Braun, who is working on many new projects. I am a person of influence, and treated with respect.
Eva is very happy here too, and we even have a new dog, which we have called Blondi Two. When you arrive, you will be taken to a nice house, then driven up to see me here. You will be surprised how well I look, and just how comfortably we are set up here, I assure you.
Louis could barely contain himself. It looked as if he was going to get some of that stolen wealth back after all.